Guitarist Phil Demmel
of Machine Head
only joined the band in 2002 (the band originally was founded in 1992), but he's been around long enough to see the band at its lowest and highest points. Right before his arrival, Machine Head faced an uncertain future after lackluster sales and its split with the Roadrunner record label. It's not until the bandmates decided to completely reject the idea of writing singles
and write music for themselves that things started to change for the better. Roadrunner apparently embraced the musicians' newly found confidence and re-signed them in 2004.
Machine Head's next offering, The Blackening
, is a record full of furious riffs and epic songs that is set to be released in March. Demmel recently talked with Ultimate Guitar writer Amy Kelly about how the new album marks a musical and technical breakthrough for Machine Head.
Ultimate Guitar: After everything the band has been through over the years, did you approach songwriting differently on The Blackening?
I think we kind of carried over a lot of the same process that we did on the last album, as far as the writing for ourselves. We write for ourselves and that's what our fans like. So we stayed with that formula with this. This will be the first time that I was with band from the beginning as far as the writing process is concerned. I joined on the last album and only helped write 3 songs. They had pretty much 95 percent of the album already written.
So with this one, I was involved in the beginning. Rob (Flynn, vocals/guitar) and I really had a chance to kind of go back to a little bit of our history in the early 80's thrash stage. There's a lot of fast riffing, kind of intricate, technical stuff. We kind of wanted to push ourselves. Everybody in the band, we just kind of wanted to push ourselves musically. So what can you expect from The Blackening? Long songs! A couple 10-minute songs, a couple 8-minutes songs. Just really the most intricate and most technical Machine Head record to date.
Talk a little about those 10-minute songs. What are they called and what was the process behind those in comparison with the other tracks?
|"We write for ourselves and that's what our fans like."|
The opener is called Clenching The Fists of Dissent. It's basically 10 minutes because there's kind of an intro at the beginning. What basically started with the song is Dave (McClain, drums) coming up with something. We had like a middle section and it was really rocking kind of double-bass, a cool breakdown. Rob is really good at melodic little breakdowns. As we add the intro to it and the stomping, moshing metal part to it, the songs just tend to grow. We end up adding riffs to it that we don't want to lose. It's just like, Why? Why do we have to take it out?
We're not a radio-driven band. It's just like, Man, we like it. That's all that matters. Let's keep it in.
Were there certain bands that had an influence on the way the band constructs its songs?
Definitely. There are certain elements to these songs that made us think like that. One comes to mind in the song called Wolves. Metallica does come up because it's a staple of metal. But there's a band called Mercyful Fate, and they've got timing changes in their stuff. We are really influenced guitar-wise, Rob and I, from some of the stuff that Hank (Shermann) and Michael Denner do. We totally have a couple parts where people are gonna go, Oh, man, that's totally Mercyful Fate right there!
Are there any particular solos on The Blackening that you spent more time going over and perfecting?
There's a solo in the song Halo that has like a 16-count hold, where it's just me playing. I had originally written a hold for this riff that I had, and then Rob changed it. So it became something else and I was really struggling with it. I came in and actually recorded something for it, and all 3 guys from the band just kind of went, Oh, dude, you're so much better than that.
So I think the solo in Halo I'm pretty proud of.
It sounds like there's no shortage of honesty in the band.
I think that we've been doing this for a while and together for a while, and our egos are big enough to be able to withstand the criticism where it is constructive. Nobody's here just ripping everybody to where we won't take the criticism and work at it. Like I did with that solo, the guys weren't feeling it. When I hear what I did, it was likeugh.
Have the other members of the band told you if the songwriting process was much different before you joined the band?
|"Every label wanted the radio single. That's just not what this band is about."|
I'm not too sure. I've heard them say that it's kind of familiar with the way when the first guitar player was in the band. Rob and I, we were both in a band previously, in a thrash band called Vio-lence. So we spent a considerable amount of time playing together. When I first joined the band, it was just like crazy how things were just flying out, adlibbing it. So I think as far as a writing partner, Rob and I might be the closest. That's what makes it different.
When you joined in 2002, Machine Head had gone through some tough times in terms of lower sales and issues with the Roadrunner record label. What was the mood of the band when you first arrived on the scene?
The momentum definitely wasn't there. They were on the outs with the label. The album sold well, but it was their lowest-selling to date. The fans have always really been there. It's not really reflective in the album sales, but the way they tour they, we, draw some of the most dedicated fans. It definitely was very transitional. They didn't know label-wise, guitar-player wise because I didn't join immediately. I only did it temporarily for about 2 weeks, so they were definitely undecided as to what they were gonna do.
Was there any moment that marked a change in the attitude of the band?
I think as far as temperament in the band, I think that before I joined they had a meeting. Everybody was pretty upset with each other. I think it was Dave who just said, You know what? We're a metal band. Let's be in a metal band and write songs for us. Even what we're doing now, we're writing for our label. Let's do it for us.
That kind of turned everybody into like, Yeah, that's what we need to do.
Did the record label really tell the band do play a specific type of song?
Even after Roadrunner had parted ways - it was amicable - every label they were speaking to wanted that. They wanted the radio single. That's just not what this band is about. They just got to thinking, Well, maybe if we write the one single and then just have the rest of the album this way, maybe that's the lesser of 2 evils. Or we can just not be singed.
Even in the lowest points, there were still a lot of dedicated, hardcore fans. How did that affect the band?
|"So what can you expect from The Blackening? Long songs!"|
I think that that was a major contributor to the band not folding. I think that the fact that the kids were coming up and saying, No, you can't quite. No, you have to keep going.
I think that was a huge, huge part of Machine Head not quitting.
The band interacts a lot with the fans through your website, whether having them vote on what cover song you'll play or having them come to playback parties.
We all post on the board. We all chat with the guys on the message board. We invited them out sing backups on the album, and we asked anybody in the Bay area that was from the board if they wanted to come down and do some vocals on a song. So we had about 20 of them come down, took pictures of them, and put them up on the board so they could show off in front of everybody else!
It's all because they're very important to the band. We want to keep that relationship with the fans. I think that's why they are so dedicated. It's because there is this bond. Everybody in this band will spend hours after the show signing autographs and hanging out. I'm constantly going, Hey, where's the bar around here? So I think that it's very important. I think that they play such a huge part in what Machine Head is.
Some people are really into discussing what genre Machine Head fits into best. How do you usually respond to people who get worked up over that?
We're just metal. It's what Dave McClain says! Just metal.
Has The Blackening reached the mixing stage yet?
Yes. I think we got our second song today. So it's in the process of getting mixed. We heard our second mix today. So they're going to be doing by next week. It is slamming! It sounds really, really good.
How many guitar tracks do you usually lay down in a song?
There are 4 total guitar tracks, but there's like overdub stuff. We do a lot of different harmony stuff, but usually 4 rhythm tracks.
What guitars and amps did you use in the studio?
We played on the same rig, which was a Peavey 5150 and through Marshall vintage 1960 amps. Rob played ESPs and I play Jacksons.
What is it about the Jackson that has nailed the sound you've been going for?
|"We want to keep that relationship with the fans. I think that's why they are so dedicated."|
A lot of the sound comes from the pickups that we use. But the guitar, as far as playing it, there's just something about it. I can't really play a Strat-type body because it just lands on my body funny. I've just been used to playing a V for so long. I think Jackson just makes the coolest shapes. Jackson has just been something I've playing for about 25 years.
What kind of acoustic guitars work best for you?
We're using Fernandez on the road. We usually rent acoustics to use in the studio. By the encore, it just got sweat on it and vodka cranberry, water drenched all over it!
Do you a release date for The Blackening?
Are you still planning to re-release Burn My Eyes (originally released in 1994)?
Yeah. That's gonna be probably a year from now.
Will there be a tour right around the release of The Blackening?
I think we're gonna go out on February 15. We'll be touring the States.
What else does the band have planned in the coming year?
We're going to put up another video of the studio. We'll probably be filming a video or 2 before or around the release. About the same time we're touring, right before the album comes out. Other than that, it's holidays!